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May 14, 2010

Saving Energy Takes Getting Your Hands Dirty…

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IStock_000010093494XSmall I often write about saving energy, improving efficiency, and lowering your planetary impact... so it’s time for me to come clean and show you my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint.  When I first designed my home back in 2000, I wasn’t thinking energy costs were going to skyrocket.  Instead I went for good efficiency, but not great efficiency... I’m paying for that now.  Even though our home is built from solid concrete poured walls with very high "R" factors, the overall open design allows large amounts of leakage through many avenues such as doors and windows.  Along with the basic window films, improved insulation, and better living habits we still struggle trying to keep our home comfortable, yet efficient in the use of electricity and propane gas...

I’ve given this much thought over the years and have recently embarked (as mentioned in my prior post, "Ignorance is Bliss") on a massive project to automate, well... just about everything that can be automated in our home.  The idea is to instrument everything (or most things that use power) to understand where the energy is going and to use that information for making decisions on energy use.  For example, if the TV and lights are on in the family room and the alarm system is set to "AWAY" mode, then the system should turn off the TV, adjust the thermostat to save power and turn off all the lights.  In everyday life, we are so caught up in our schedule that remembering to do these simple things falls far down on our list.  A "Smart Home" that knows your lifestyle can save you power if it is properly equipped - that’s where "getting your hands dirty" comes in... however, it feels like I’m trying to move an eight lane highway without disrupting the flow of traffic - not so easy (see my wiring closet photo below).

I never thought about how isolated our home's systems were until I began this project.  The lights were originally manual switches (I was the automation) which I replaced over a period of a year with Universal Power-line Bus (UPB) smart switches that are networked together over the power line (no new wires).  The thermostats were individual manual units without setback or other communications ability.  The hot water heater is gas (propane) and is simply on or off... same with the recirculation pump.  The appliances have no power metering or timing ability and cannot communicate with anything - except a human operator. The list goes on... so you can see the complexity of trying to tie all of these disjointed systems together as well as adding the sub-metering ability.

DSCN3124_small So I’ve begun by prioritizing the largest users of power that I can control... My list is HVAC, Lighting and hot water (propane).  I need to know what’s on as well as the state of the home (security set away or home, time of day, weather conditions, etc.) to make proper decisions.  The lighting system is 90% complete - most all switches are automated and networked so I can address a single unit or using the protocol, address all units at once via "links".  These links are pre-programmed to take a switch to a certain level (on, off, 20%, etc.).  So using an "all off" link, I can turn all the lights in the house off in one command.

The HVAC is a bit more complicated due to multiple air handlers... they need to be coordinated so they are not fighting each other to cool or heat the home. A zoned system would have been much better (I wasn’t watching the store that day...), but we have what we have.  So, replacing each thermostat with a computerized setback version was the first step (and most reasonably priced solution).  This has worked to greatly reduce our consumption in general, but there’s still money on the table.  The next step is automated thermostats with communications ability.  These can be networked (RS-485, UPB, etc.) so that computer software can force a condition (off, setback, etc.).

The hot water is simpler since we have a recirculating pump that can be turned off - this limits how much water is being heated and can dynamically be turned on when people are home thus saving propane.  The appliances are a different matter.  There have been talks for years of appliance communication standards so that HA systems can have control (the universal remote for everything, etc.).  Each appliance manufacturer had their proprietary scheme of how it should be done, and after years of trying to come to a common standard, it fell apart.  This was partially due to a lack of a "need" - no one could rationalize why someone might want to control their washer, dryer, oven or dish-washer from a home computer... until oil prices shot up sending electricity costs through the roof.  I personally felt that one and I’m sure you did too.  However, no one in our home has finished cooking and left the oven on (so far), so that’s pretty low on my priority list...

If you want to know more about the ancient attempts for unifying everything in the home, check out the EIA-600 CEBus standard... some really great OOP concepts, but it never flew.  Also UPB, INSTEON, and Z-Wave are all lighting (and other equipment) control standards with products available today... I’ll keep you updated as I try to finish what I’ve started, but as they say, "The Blacksmith’s kitchen often has wooden utensils".  Till next time...

October 01, 2009

Ignorance is Bliss... How Knowing Too Much Can Ruin Your Day

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Don't watch your power meter to closely... you may lose sleep!

My name is Rick Zarr and I am a geek.  OK, I’ve said it publically for the record.  I get excited over reading articles on quantum well transistors and photonic lattice light emitting diodes.  Yes, I live to learn about technology and how it can be employed to improve our lives. Most of all... I like to build things - always have and always will. I have a "home project" worksheet that looks more like a broker’s stock trading analysis complete with Gant charts and status updates. I am a consummate data collector and home automation enthusiast - much to the dismay of my wonderful, loving wife who tolerates all the lights going out at the press of an incorrect button... but I digress. Information is power over your environment and it helps immensely with decision making processes - most of the time...

I so much love to instrument things, that over the past nine years I have been equipping our home with sensors, custom software and automation to know exactly what’s going on.  My goal was to improve our "living" efficiency as if our house were some giant manufacturing machine kicking out sneakers or soda bottles.  I will admit it is a work in process... engineer’s minds never sleep and we are always coming up with new ways to solve problems or improve processes.  So goes my "smart" house - which should be more aptly referred to as a "modestly clever" house with SLD.

I am usually intelligent in my decision processes, so when I started this project I learned that knowing the truth can sometimes be less favorable then simply being ignorant to the topic.  The power consumption of our house is a classic example.  Now, I knew I was a large consumer of energy. I write about the topic all the time and I’m painfully aware of the "average" consumption in America. I was on a mission to find where every milliwatt was going...

My quest started me on a crazed path to rid our home of energy waste... this lasted about 10 minutes until I realized that the rest of the family wasn’t buying into it.  It’s much easier to say, "Would you mind turning off the TV when you’re done watching America’s Next Top Model" as apposed to "Here’s a detailed report of the family’s energy consumption for the last week - we have a consumption goal of Y, and your quota is X so please adjust your life-style accordingly"... my daughters would simply laugh.

Following my rant I was lovingly banished to my home office.  I sat at my computer and watched the machine in action - lights going on here and there, air conditioners cycling on and off, pumps starting and stopping and realized that to make this type of thing work, my family (including me) needed to be out of the equation.

I am now working on adding rules to the system that (here’s a stretch) "learn" what we’re doing and adjust the house accordingly.  For example, if the thermostat in the bonus room is set to 75°F and there’s no one moving around, the TV is off or worse, the security alarm is set in "away" mode, then it’s probably safe to set the thermostat back to 85°F until someone changes it (or someone enters the room).  There are many other examples, which made me realize that I just added another item to my long list of things to build... this is going to take awhile.  Until next time...

July 22, 2009

Engineer This!

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Turn those ideas into reality! So there’s an energy crisis... I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me they’re in a "crisis" state, it usually involves 911, paramedics, attorneys or counselors.  Somehow I don’t get the same feeling about our energy "crisis" when I’m driving to work and I’m stuck in traffic, or when I’m flying a "red eye" home from the west coast and I’m looking out the window at thousands of square miles of street lights blazing.

A crisis is upon us, but we seem to be going about our normal lives not really worried about unplugging that phone charger or adjusting the HVAC to save some energy.  Let me propose a future that could be only a few years away and without changing behavior could produce a true crisis. Here’s the scenario:

It’s 2015 and both China and India’s economy is booming again.  People who had never owned a motor scooter now are buying the latest Tata Motors Nano and other sub-subcompacts - and at over 60 miles per gallon, economical to own since gasoline is now $5.50US per gallon in the US and over $15.00US per gallon everywhere else.  There are now over 1 billion vehicles in operation worldwide and the oil consuming nations do not have the capacity to refine crude oil into gasoline and diesel fuel driving the cost through the roof. 

This high cost has rippled into everyday life driving the price of other fuel sources such as natural gas to new highs.  Modern gas burning power plants are now paying excessive prices for supply and passing that onto consumers driving the price of a kilowatt-hour to over $0.35.  Monthly electric bills that used to be in the $150 per month range are now over $400 and cities are turning off their street and building lights to conserve power. The world is now in an energy crisis...

This scenario is not too far fetched if you consider that the US has not built a new oil refinery since 1976... If people start migrating to electric vehicles which need to be plugged into the grid, increased demand will be placed on power plants once again driving up cost.  It is simple economics... when the demand of a commodity increases driving the supply lower, the price goes up. 

So here’s my call to action for our next generation of engineers about to enter the work force (or those already in it) - Do something about it! There are several key technologies that still need to be developed, and those that succeed will not only be heroes of our age (the carbon age), but will surely reap the financial  benefits as well.  Below, in order, find my list of areas that need to be developed and commercialized to reduce our energy consumption.

1. Inexpensive, safe and reliable electrical energy storage. This could include a new generation of batteries, but better still... a solid state device such as a mega-capacitor that never wears out.  Battery technology has not evolved much since the 1950... abundant energy storage can drive the adoption of electric vehicles and energy harvesting (e.g. solar).
2. Smarter Everything.  If everyday stuff had more brains and could communicate with a common protocol (language) to everything else (scary Matrix-esque thought...), our "stuff’" could work together to conserve energy.  Examples could include smart appliances and equipment (that know the price of energy and act accordingly), smarter cars (that know the price of fuel and tolls, shortest distances, driver’s habits, etc), smarter power grids that can communicate to consumers what’s going on, street lights that dim when no motion is detected in the area and more. Even coffee makers that only brew one cup made to order by reading an RF ID tag on the bottom of a user’s mug would save energy (not to mention coffee - I want one of those, by the way...).
3. Better use of existing technology.  For example, laser printers that fuse the toner using high power LEDs instead of an old fashioned quartz tube that must heat a roller (and keep it heated even when no one is printing anything...). I see power savings (and waste) everywhere I look.  Take a look around and get inspired.
4. More efficient systems.  For example, the basic heat pump air conditioning or refrigeration system hasn’t evolved much in 50 years (other than coolant material changes which actually hurt efficiency).  The basic system uses the gas / liquid phase changes to absorb heat and then pump it somewhere else.  Not much life left here.  How about using endothermic magneto-caloric material such as gadolinium (or other composite materials) in a strong magnetic field to cool your fridge or house.  The Brits are working on just such a design for a solid state refrigerator. Hey, isn’t that the same nation that gave us the guts of our microwave ovens? They invented the high-power cavity magnetron in the early 1940s.

So you probably get my point.  Humans are driven by environmental pressures. If there’s not enough water at our watering hole, then let’s move to a new one.  But let’s not wait until the hole has gone dry, the vegetation has died and all of the water buffalo have moved on to other places to say, "Hey, we should move to another watering hole."  Let’s be a bit more proactive. Till next time...

February 08, 2009

Will Energy Costs Revive Home Automation?

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Home Automation System Once upon a time there was a geeky guy who loved computers and electronics. Alas, he was unmarried, sans children and a social life.  So, one day he decided it would be a good idea to connect up two disconnected things - his home computer and his X-10 based lighting modules he purchased from Radio Shack.  This required some embedded design, assembly code, printed circuit boards, several severe shocks and some application software.  At the end of his quest, he had effectively created a tiny home automation system capable of turning on and off lights at sunrise or sunset, detecting when he was home (which was very frequent) and setting the lighting mood.  When evening ended, the system made sure everything (including the always in-use coffee maker) was turned off.  That was me in 1994... needless to say I’m not so lonely anymore! I have a beautiful wife, two children, a house, a dog, car payments, etc... how things have changed!

But what ever happened to my dream of a completely automated home?  My thoughts in 1994 where that technology (namely the Internet) would reach into the last few feet of my house by the end of the century and every wall switch and appliance would have an IP address... this just never seemed to materialize - for the masses that is.  Yes, there are spectacularly expensive home automation systems available from several manufacturers along with application software that requires a PC in every room.  These "high end" technologies are only available to those who can drop $40,000 or more to control their homes.  I’m not one of those people... and I don’t know very many who are. 

So what happened?  Why didn’t the technology ever find its way into our new homes? I believe the answer is quite simple - there was no "need" for it.  Manual rocker switches or dimmers are fine for just about everyone and the cost is hard to beat.  You can buy a dimmer switch at Home Depot or other hardware supply stores for under $10.00 (a basic model) and install it yourself (if you’re careful).  There is simply no need to automate your washing machine or your refrigerator - that is until now.

In the late 20th century, electrical costs were around 6-10 cents per kilowatt-hour (in most areas in the U.S.).  A very reasonable amount for what you received considering the electrical grid and generation plant overhead.  An average home might use 800 to 900 kilowatt-hours per month, so the monthly bill would be under $90.  Everyone was happy...

Now, let’s look at a hypothetical world - maybe only 10 years away.  In the world of 2019, electrical power is sporadic due to an aging infrastructure and extremely costly at 35 cents per kilowatt hour.  Tariffs have now been added to cover "time of use" which not only includes the actual power used, but when it was used. This was extended to cover residential users in an attempt to keep the aging grid from collapsing during peak hours. Consuming energy during this period (7:00 AM until 7:00 PM), would add an additional 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (that’s the equivalent of 55 cents per kilowatt-hour). So the same home using 800 to 900 kilowatt-hours now has a monthly bill around $400 - everyone is not happy anymore...

In this future world, co-generation from solar and wind sources would help defer the costs of grid connected power. Government subsidies would help put these technologies on many of the roof tops and back yards of residential consumers. Competition as well as new developments would also reduce the cost, but not enough to offset the demand. 

With the cost of energy soaring in the world of 2019, new technologies could finally flourish that help reduce the consumption and improve overall efficiency.  A light switch that is monitored and controlled from a central computer could finally retail for $60 and people would buy it.  Appliances that communicate with the house metering system to know when to use power and have goals to reduce cost would now make sense - and every major white goods manufacturer would be scrambling to add those features to their latest products. Conservation and efficiency would become the mantra of the day since building new carbon based generation capability would have been outlawed - an interesting future it could be...

Economic pressure can move mountains.  As the cost of energy continues to increase - and it will continue - technologies will emerge to manage and conserve power.  Home automation systems may finally become as common as plumbing in an effort to conserve and manage energy. Industrial users have been closely watching their electrical meters for a very long time - now it’s time for residential users to start watching theirs.  See my previous blog, "Metering Your Power Consumption" for more ideas on monitoring where your energy is going.  Till next time...

September 08, 2008

Metering Your Power Consumption

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Power_meter_small In this world of ever increasing energy costs, almost everyone is trying to save where they can.  I’m one of those people that try to watch our electric bills and understand where all the power is going...  only one problem - there is only one meter on the house.  This lonely meter tells me - via my bill each month - how many kilowatt-hours were consumed by our household.  Not really informative enough for me.  This is the equivalent of getting a bank statement with only the total spent for the month... you’d like to know where all that money went, right?

A good start would be to know how much energy is being used during the day in real time as you use it. I’ve heard about these little gadgets that monitor the power going into your house and wirelessly report your consumption in real time.  An example of these devices is the Power Cost Monitor which actually reads out in dollars per hour and total for the month.  This provides you immediate feed-back on the power usage of your home so you can make decisions on how to reduce your consumption.  What a great idea and it can be installed onto your existing meter without the need for an electrician.

So, my first call went to Florida Power & Light to find out what they can do to help me. After getting though the phone gauntlet and arriving at a human being I asked the question "Is there a way for me to read your meters remotely so I can watch our power consumption".  The answer was, "no, and attaching anything to the meter to read it is considered meter tampering - which is a very bad thing".  This first call did not go well and I didn’t really want to have them elaborate on the "which is a very bad thing" part of that answer. I couldn’t believe the utility company didn’t want me to try and save energy by closely monitoring my consumption.

Subsequent calls to FP&L also failed to find any advocates for such a device.  So I called the company that distributes the monitors and asked if they had ever heard of such problems.  They did agree that certain states and power utilities will not allow a homeowner to place anything in contact with the physical meter.  The utilities are afraid of people attempting to defraud them and steal power - understandable, but pretty hard core considering our energy crisis.  I would think they would embrace this technology and even sell it to you.  The whole ordeal made me want to run out and buy a complete solar installation and disconnect our house from the grid!  Maybe next year...

So my next option would require monitoring equipment to be installed in my main panel - and that has no effect on the utility since it’s on my side of the meter.  There are devices such as "The Energy Detective" available from the Power Meter Store that installs in your main distribution panel immediately following the meter.  This also has a remote unit that provides several real-time and accumulated power consumption numbers.  There is even a version that provides a computer interface and software to monitor and record your usage... a great feature.

Now that I solved the problem with monitoring the total power used by our home, what about the smaller appliances and systems?  There are devices called "Plug Power Meters" which connect in-line with smaller appliances or electronics.  These are watt meters with plugs and are very handy for looking for phantom or vampire loads - power drains caused by electronics that never completely turn off.  But why do electronics draw power even when off?  Let’s take a look.

Many modern electronic systems have microcontrollers (tiny computers) running inside of them to monitor various functions like remote controls, and front panel switches and buttons.  There may also be a clock or other display which are always on (e.g. your microwave oven digital clock). When you turn off the unit by pressing the power button, the microcontroller turns off various sections of the system, but remains on to monitor other buttons or a remote control.  That part of the system never turns off and continues to use energy.

Also, communications equipment such as a cable box remains in constant contact with the central office to monitor network status, receive commands, and to enable and disable services - even when turned off.  You may find only a slight reduction in power for these types of devices when powered down since they continue to communicate with the cable system.  That’s how my DVR records my shows even when I’ve turned it off (see my previous post "The Case Of The Missing 42 Minutes" ).

Sometimes, it’s simply bad design. Take your phone charger and look at the power consumption when the phone is disconnected. You may find it continues to draw power - maybe even one or more watts.  This is due to a lack of electronics to monitor the load.  When the load (your cell phone) is disconnected, the charger may continue to "try" and charge the phone unaware that it has been unplugged.  Low cost chargers are missing this type of circuitry. A better solution is to actively monitor the load and "disconnect" the system when the load (i.e. the phone) is absent.  A simple push-button can reactivate the charger or very low power stand-by electronics could automatically turn it back on when the phone is reconnected. A simple loop in the cable through the cell phone would work.  When removing the phone from the charger, the circuit would be broken signaling the system to power off.  All of these ideas solve the problem, but with additional cost.

For all of you wondering where those 3000 kilowatts of power went last month, it may be worthwhile to purchase a power monitor and find those offending units.  My breakdown was fairly simple... I live in Florida.  The months of July through September are the hottest often exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.  Air conditioning constantly fights to keep the inside of the house cool and constitutes about 40% - 50% of our usage.  Refrigeration is the next biggest followed by other large appliances (i.e. stove, washer, dryer, etc.).  Interestingly, lighting accounts for only about 20% of the total power usage in our home... however, it’s required every day all year long - unlike the air conditioning.  I need to investigate this more over a year’s period.

An interesting note... I installed automated thermostats on all of our air conditioning units (we have three large systems) and saw a dramatic savings in our power bills.  We paid for all the thermostats in the first 2 months and have been reaping the savings ever since.  It turned out that human error (or lack of memory) was wasting most of our power.  Leaving the temperature set incorrectly while at work or away was the biggest offender.  The new thermostats automatically adjust the temperature when we’re gone to save energy and then readjust the temperature to a comfortable level before we return home.

Hope this gives you something to think about.  Till next time...